Revolutionary Microshutters Will Change Telescopes & Optics Forever

NASA researchers make a technological breakthrough that will enable faster, clearer and wider astronomical observations.

space, nasa, telescope, opticsEarlier this week we wrote about NASA’s plans to design the successor to the James Webb telescope. Although that mission is still in its infancy NASA researchers are already making headway developing the hardware that will power a new generation of deep field observations. In fact, a new microshutter could have wide ranging implications for astronomy and the field of optics as a whole.

Widely considered one of the most innovative technologies being developed at Goddard, the new microshutter is comprised of thousands of MEMS shutters no bigger than a human hair.

Combined into 5 postage stamp-sized arrays, each of the microshutter’s 250,000 blinking components can open or close independently. With that independence the microshutter is capable of targeting hundreds of objects simultaneously.

Though its broad multi-tasking abilities mark an advance in optics the new microshutter has a few more innovations up its sleeve. Principle among these is its lack of any magnetic components. In earlier versions of the shutter a magnet passed over each lens activating the mechanisms. While the magnet worked to prime the system it was bulky, weighty and limited the shutter’s field of view.

In an upgrade that will allow a new generation of microshutters to scale up their ability NASA engineers replaced the old magnetic system with electrostatic actuation. By applying a current to each shutter the new electrostatic system will have greater control over the entire system. Now, engineers have the ability to open only the shutters they require, possibly extending the life of the array by at least 100 times. What’s more, engineers expect that without an enormous, ham-fisted magnetic control they’ll be able to increase future microshutters’ fields of view to 50 times the size of the current model.

Currently, NASA engineers are tackling one remaining hurdle before their microshutter can be released into the scientific wild. At the moment the shutter relies on a large computerized switch box. Given the space and weight constraints of optical and space-based systems, engineers are working to replace the bulky mechanism with an integrated circuit. Once identified, integrated and optimized the circuit should complete NASA’s latest optical breakthrough.

With NASA constant assessing new exploratory missions this new microshutter should open up more room for daring proposals. But before this device makes it into space it could also make a significant impact down here on Earth.

“In just four years, we have made great progress. A major private company has expressed interest in our technology, to say nothing of the three potential astrophysics missions,” said Mary Li, an engineer at Goddard. “Given our progress, I am confident that we can make this technology more readily accessible to the optics community.”

Image Courtesy of NASA